How to Eat Tonkatsu with Tea-rice
No matter how badly you lose, you’re not a loser
When he took over as manager of the Kyoto tonkatsu  store called Gin’ya, [silver store] Shūji Akagi had a kind of “if you only remember one thing, remember this” thought.
I am not here as a mop-up pitcher.
Gin’ya was a team in a slump, headed for defeat. In this town, a certain old, well-established tonkatsu shop reigned supreme and held absolute power, so much so that when someone said, “Let’s go out for tonkatsu,” it was understood that everyone was thinking of this certain old shop. That’s just what circumstances were. As Gin’ya’s customer base stretched thin, the shop lost energy, and because there was no energy, the foot traffic declined. The vicious cycle continued, and the restaurant suffered considerable.
Akagi fully accepted those conditions. They were all it took to fill him with a sudden will to fight. I am no a mop-up pitcher.
Maybe the 9th inning would end and the match would be an 8 to 0 loss. He had no secret plan for a last-ditch attack. He was perfectly prepared to lose the fight. But that didn’t mean that was the role he’d come here to perform.
It’s like, we’re already on the floor, we can’t get any lower.
There was a big shake up coming.
Shūji Akagi had been born to a family that managed a cheap dining hall.
“I always thought, like, it’s busy, and the work is intense, but the old man seems to handle it pretty well.” He had told the story to some friends of his. “The old man would whisper about ‘even a worm can turn on you,’ like he was doing the hottest boasting.”
But before the young Akagi could grow up, the dining hall went bankrupt.
Maybe his father’s whispered boasting had been carved somewhere on his heart, but Akagi was still an adolescent when he took his first steps down the road into the food service business with almost no hesitation.
At first, he trained as a Chinese cook. But his frame was on the small side, and he wasn’t exactly Mr Muscles, so the work was a bit hard, and Akagi gave it up as hopeless.
“Chinese cooking is a brute strength exercise, and the work surface is always so high…”
He transferred to a tonkatsu shop. Everything had turned out to be just preperation for Gin’ya, but that didn’t mean it had all gone smoothly.
For a number of years, Akagi entered the so-called Berms of Life. He had a wife and daughter, but he was seperated from them. He was seperated from work, too. He didn’t even tell his friends the details of his situation, but things were arranged so at least his six-year-old daughter could come live with him. After that, they began their father-daughter lifestyle.
That lifestyle had resurrected in Akagi the feverish pride in food service work that he’d seen from atop his own father’s shoulders when he was young. He returned to that world from which he’d been so long absent, to polish his skills. He lost no time in clearly explaining his passions to those around him.
It was an estimation of and being trusted with those passions that had gotten him Gin’ya.
He’d been prepared for the worst, but their competition’s citadel was stronger than he’d imagined, and Gin’ya’s last battle was going to be quite a sight to behold.
This was going to be one of those situations, wasn’t it, where you couldn’t shift the beast for all the pulling and pushing in the world. Gin’ya was as slow as a rusted machine. It wasn’t moving.
It’s sales were ¥30,000 a day, most days.  If he calculated using the price of a tonkatsu combo meal as a ruler, that was a bit more than twenty visitors.
“Ah, today was so busy.”
That would be a day with ¥40,000 sales. That was the state of affairs.
Akagi was a veteran who’d gone down a lot of paths, but even he had to sigh.
Even if I tried to shake things up, where would I grab hold?
It felt like searching in the darkness for a light switch. No matter how much he groped around, all he found was a blank wall.
First off, personnel reform.
He steeled himself for this one.
Everyone in the shop had fatally lost their ambition. They were stained with a losing attitude. He had to do something about that first. If the store employees couldn’t communicate a passion for the store, no one else would even want to try eating there.
Akagi said to the small number of staff, “You gotta be bitter about losing, right.”
It was a gabler’s saying. If you lose and you’re not bitter, retire. He’d wanted to say that more than anything.
But when a sense of defeat has attached itself to someone for a long time, those kind of abstract shouts of encouragement don’t accomplish anything. Preaching is worthless.
Akagi knew that for a fact.
This is something I gotta show with my own actions.
He’d work his tail off. He’d turn their attitudes around by using himself as an example.
They were short handed. But there was no room in the budget to hire any part-timers.
Akagi went to work with reckless abandon. He cut down on his sleeping time. They say half one’s life is spent sleeping. So he’d go without for that one extra hour that might pull the situation back from the brink, and he figured he’d square up the balance sheets later.
He livened up the atmosphere of the place, cheering loudly whenever possible. If the sales receipts went up even ¥1000  from the day before, it became a cause for great joy.
Even when the staff stared apathetically at him, he never waverd.
I’m like some kind of out of work, third-rate actor, he thought, alone in the store in the middle of the night, but he never regretted it.
Things seemed to change a bit – a truly small bit – for the better. One or two customers seemed to be repeats.
But even with this, we’re not very popular, are we.
What do I do about this wall? He thought about things like that with his chronically sleep-deprived mind, but then there came a certain telephone call…
The person on the other end of the line gave the name of a television show.
“We’d like to get some basic information about your shop,” they said.
It was a regional Kansai  news program. It had extremely high ratings, especially considering it’s morning hours, but they had a standard Saturday segment called “On Foot.” This Saturday, today, they were aiming to introduce a new spot called “A Little Trip,” where they wandered through the suburbs.
They were hoping to put Gin’ya on the segment, they said.
Why would, I mean us…? was the thought that of course had swept over him, but it was a unique chance to appear in front of the people of the world and say, “Gin’ya is here.” He’d reported it to the area manager in charge of the region, and a decision had been made.
A few days later, the people in charge of the show’s filming had visited for a meeting and some basic data collection. There were two of them, a calm-mannered producer, and a bearded, large-framed director with a presence to match.
“Uh…” Akagi asked them. “What sorry of information did you need?”
The producer immediately answered, “Tonkatsu with tea-rice,” and continued with something along the lines of, “We’ll put that unique-ness right out in front.”
“Is that right,” Akagi said, forcing himself to be calm. What he was thinking was: FINALLY!
“Tonkatsu with tea-rice” had been on the menu as a specialty item ever since Gin’ya had opened. A breaded pork cutlet, grilled in a soy-based sauce and served on an iron plate, with half to be eaten plain, and the other half put atop fried rice with a cabbage garnish and tea poured over it. That was how their menu gave the recepie.
But even that hadn’t been out there at all lately. It wasn’t popular. This town had an old tradition of pouring tea over things, so of course people couldn’t help but think of it as some kind of seasonal item. And even that idea didn’t seem to spark anything in people, but rather produced an atmosphere that seemed to drive people even further away. Akagi had been mulling it over.
Even this shop’s specialty is going to dry up and wither away, huh. But when your clean up hitter has a long slump, don’t you immediately bench him. That’s how you show your respect for him. It’s another way of telling him you care.
It was a subject he’d mulled over from different angles, too. What could he do about it? And then, look what the wind had blown in, some reporters gathering data for a TV show.
“I understand. You’re saying some celebrities would sample our tonkatsu with tea-rice, right?” Akagi asked, but he hadn’t quite hit the mark.
“No, we’d like you to be the one to eat it, Akagi, as the store manager,” the bearded director said. The manager would make it, the manager would eat it, the manager would tell everyone how delicious it was. That seemed to be the plan.
“You don’t get stage fright do you, Mr Akagi?” the producer asked calmly.
“No, not really…”
“Don’t worry about it. A little nervousness is just reality for a novice.”
“Sure, thanks,” Akagi answered admiringly, but he was really thinking: Stage fright?
“Life is ad libbing.”
It had been Akagi’s recognized method of existence until now. Leaving things to chance served people best in the long run. And now he was going to put himself in front of the television cameras and offer up some tonkatsu.
The day of filming arrived.
Movie cameras, monitors to show what they were filming, direction mics that looked like they were chief among mops that swept the floor, lights that illuminated even the inside of your nostrils, electric cords like a tangle of thick spaghetti, a mountain of equipment, and through it all shuffled men in headphones and brisk women, with that large-bodied director in a daunting pose, glaring out over the whole area from dead center.
“Aka-yan, they’re gonna start filming you soon. Don’t have any last words, do ya,” somebody called out.
There was a peanut gallery. Many of the store managers from nearby eateries had gathered to watch. They had an air of anticipation about them, like, With that guy in front of the camera, this is bound to be a weird one.
Akagi had been a character right from the start, and because he was anxious about the Gin’ya Renaissance, he had striven to make that character stand out all the more.
“Watch out, Aka-yan, they’ll fit you for a jumper if you’re not careful.”
“What am I, a suspect?” Akagi answered, his timing like the straight man in a comedy pair.
“The camera’s swinging around. When we get on air, you go for it,” the director called out.
Akagi’s voice went up with a gurgled shout.
The camera seemed to be trying to nestle itself against his cheek. It nuzzled up against him at point blank range, so close that he felt like the lens was about to stick its tongue out and lick him.
“Five, four, three, two, start!”
He heard the bearded director’s voice through a fog, from far away. The segment had been planned out, they were going to film a cut of him making the sauce first. They’d decided on a few lines for Akagi.
“First, we make the sauce.”
That’s all it was, but he couldn’t manage it.
“Fuh- fuh- fuh…”
All the muscles in his lips went stiff and the words wouldn’t come out. The moment stretched on endlessly.
The inside of Akagi’s mind went completely blank.
Even his prepared lines started to feel weird.
“He- here is Gin’ya obsession,” he clattered on in a serious tone.
“Akagi, more Kansai-ben, please. Like normal,” the director said, not smiling.
“Take two, start!”
“And- And here we’ve got Gin’ya’s obsession.”
He sounded like someone’s prim and proper young daughter.
Finally, the food sampling segment. Akagi had had a habit since he was a child of standing his pinky up when holding chopsticks. Figuring such a guesture was probably inappropriate on television, he put some effort into standing it down, and got that much more awkward.
One of the young men in the photography corps approached him. On the director’s orders, he was untangling the electric cables, and moving chairs that were in the way of the screen off to one side, and also single-handedly doing a lot of other odd jobs – he was an Assistant. One of the restaurant staff had called him Kenta.
“The director says he’d like you to eat like it was really good…” he said, apologetically.
Okay, Akagi said, nodding weakly, and steeled himself for a new serving. He’d eaten four servings of tonkatsu with tea-rice since this morning.
He was on a small break at the moment.
He was in a bit of a daze after four servings, and was so disheartened by all his fruitless efforts, that when Kenta said to him softly, “Thanks for all your hard work,” Akagi didn’t say anything back.
“That blackboard was really impressive,” Kenta said.
“The one in front of the shop.
Akagi remembered. It was one in a stream of constant ideas to rescue the ill-fated specialty item, “Tonkatsu with tea-rice.”
Might as well try it, anyway, he’d thought, and so he’d put it into practice.
He’d put a blackboard out in front of the store. There was a hand-drawn diagram on it, “How to Eat Tonkatsu with Tea-Rice.” It hadn’t been terribly popular with the staff.
“What the heck, it’s like the store’s rank went down,” they said.
“It’s already down, I’m making it better,” Akagi had answered, and ignored the criticism.
Kenta said, “It was really interesting, so I reported it to the director.”
“Ah… Oh really?”
A question that Akagi had been wondering about for a while now – Why are they covering us? – melted away. It had been the blackboard that caught this young man’s eyes.
“Mr Akagi,” Kenta continued, “I mean, what was on the blackboard was interesting, too, but the way you looked when you were drawing it, that was really great. All hunched over…”
The day’s filming ended with Akagi’s desperate final line, “With tonkatsu, and tea-rice, it’s Gin’ya’s tonkatsu with tea-rice!”
It had taken twice as long to finish as they’d planned for, and the film crew was rolling things up and trying to catch each others’ eyes.
This part had been recorded onto video tape, but the air date wasn’t until Saturday morning, during the studio’s live broadcast. Akagi’s face wasn’t to be on display that day. Some popular actors were going to sample the dish. Akagi’s job was to diligently make tonkatsu with tea-rice for them.
Of course, they were all professional actors, so they all waved their hands around, and expressed their admiration, and glanced into the monitors to say how delicious it was, but Akagi’s spirits sank.
This show is a total failure.
Some tense, shriveled up old man recommends a dish? That doesn’t look good, no matter what it is.
We should never have put ourselves on TV.
Trying to sell our name like this was so hackneyed anyway.
We’ll have to discontinue the tonkatsu with tea-rice after all.
Even as thoughts like that dripped through his mind, and with his hands the only part of him that still moving, a voice cried out, “Thanks for your hard work, everyone!” and it was all over. Akagi left the studio feeling like it had all been a nightmare that would be forgotten in an instant.
It was a nice, clear morning that Saturday. As he walked along the pavement, footsteps came up from behind him, running double-time.
He turned around to find Kenta.
“Thanks again for your hard work.”
Kenta said he was going shopping near the station. They walked shoulder to shoulder.
“I missed my chance to say it the other day, but…”
Kenta seemed a bit embarrassed.
“Mr Akagi, that tonkatsu was really… I don’t know how to say it, it made me think, like, he’s really thought earnestly about the connection between food and people’s hearts.”
“What are you talking about, and out of nowhere,” Akagi said, flustered.
“How’s the reaction been in your restaurant?”
“I don’t know. My cell phone’s off.”
“Could you turn it on please?”
His missed call history was huge. Every single one was from the store. When he tried to call back, no one picked up. He tried again after a few minutes.
“It’s a disaster, it’s turning into a disaster! There are customers streaming into the store! It’s like there was a power outage and the whole town is throwing a revolt! Everyone’s ordering tonkatsu with tea-rice!”
Akagi had no great surge of emotion as he hung up. It was like the whole thing had happened in a foreign country. He explained the situation to Kenta, still emotionless.
“That’s great, isn’t it,” Kenta said, looking like he was happy in the deepest core of his heart.
Eventually, Akagi tried calling one other place. They’d started their father-daughter life together one year ago, he and his second grader, Megumi.
“Check it out, daddy, you’re famous!”
That short comment, he did not relate to Kenta.
“Well then, excuse me,” Kenta said at the next traffice light, with a look on his face like he wanted to say something but didn’t quite know how.
“Mr Akagi,” he said, as if he was about to mention something awkward.
“Gin’ya, an hour ago, it was in danger of closing its doors, wasn’t it?”
“Did you hear some kind of rumor?”
“When we create a TV segment, we have to look into all sorts of things.”
“Ah, that makes sense. Well, certainly the crisis was critical, I guess.”
“I’m sorry. What I wanted to say was…” Kenta wore a serious expression. “I think, you decided to turn the situation around, Mr Akagi, no matter the danger. That’s what I wanted to say.”
“Thanks, very much.”
“Give it all you’ve got. Goodbye.”
“You, too. See you again someday.”
The light changed, and the two of them waved and parted.
Nice weather today, huh.
Akagi looked up at the sky and set off. He’d have to get back to the store and look over the plans straight away. He’d have to bring everyone back down to the ground. The hard work started now. Started tonight. It wasn’t as easy as saying that since they’d appeared on TV, since they got a boost, that everything would be solved. But…
But it is true that all we have to do is take advantage of the shake up.
Kenta’s “give it all you’ve got” echoed in Akagi’s ears. The path ahead was probably still covered in thorns. But at least his questions about how to proceed had gotten some answers. After that, it was all just staying upright.
[1 – tonkatsu is a breaded pork cutlet.]
[2 – that’s about $300, ¥40k would be a little under $400]
[3 – about $10]
[4 – western japan. so it’s not just like, a local city station, it’s a regional station.]